Monday, August 31, 2009

My Porsche 911, Part I -- when it was brown!

OK, so let me start telling you the story of my Porsche 911, from the beginning. Note, my car no longer looks like depicted in the above two photographs. For several years now it is a far more pleasant Irish green, rather than the "shit" brown you see in those photos. But even in those photos there is distortion, for the car didn't look nearly THAT good when I brought it home. For a time I called it "Lazarus," as I had enough vanity to think I could raise it from the dead. Now I call it "Legion", for the many demons it has. For more details of the kind of mechanical and body exorcism I am talking about, see Mark 5.
Why I wanted a Porsche is somewhat of a mystery unto itself. Perhaps it was due to a tin toy that I had as a young child. It was a Porsche 356 Cabriolet, Cerulean blue with a red interior. It came from Germany, and had the weirdest remote control by cable steering mechanism. You attached a cable to the toy's steering wheel, and then steer remotely -- sort of. It had red rims and white sidewalls, and I loved playing with it. The same toy today sells in flea markets in Germany or on Ebay for between 500 and 700 Euros. I also admired Porsches while in College. I remember going to a Porsche dealer in Charlotte, North Carolina, on East Independence Blvd. looking at an Irish green 356 coupe. Relative poverty, a marriage, and some tough years kept that dream at bay until the mid-1990s.
So maybe it follows that I would seek out and buy a Porsche at the beginning of my first sabbatical in early 1996. Some men might lose their heads over women, but I do things equally as stupid during a car purchase. And in this case it was a doozy, as I brought home a somewhat running, brown 1971 Porsche targa that was worn out, had some critical rust issues, and also had an undercarriage that had parts of it covered in a stony tar-like substance, sort of like the car had been driven into a tar pit. When the flat bed unloaded the car in my driveway -- a car I had paid far too much for and without an inspection -- my foolishness was definitely confirmed. I might have a Ph.D from Johns Hopkins, but that does not mean I have any cool logic or rationality at certain times.

This story will continue in the next several posts!!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ronald McDonald and his Cruise-In

Hi folks -- during these waning weeks of summer, it is the time for our last feast of sponsored cruise-ins. Today it was a cruise-in at a McDonald's on Wilmington Pike in Centerville/Sugar Creek Township. The cars were really not very remarkable; several Corvairs were shown, along with a sprinkling of sports cars (Corvette, Sunbeam Tioger, Porsche 928) and pre-WWII vehicles (Essex) and hot rods. What was more remarkable about this event was not the cakewalk, or the band that played "Johnny B. Goode," but following that came to see the cars. There were the young, old, middle-aged -- all walking around the parking lot and looking at the cars. There were single women seemingly with an intereest, along with the disinterested wives who sat behind the cars and looked for other women to talk to. There were grand parents and grand children, the obese and the ones in shape (harder to find at McDonald's I guess!). I wish these late summer afternoons would never end.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Catholics, Protestants, and the Place of the Automobile in Society

Little has been done linking the important role of the automobile within the context of the history of religion in America. A former student of mine, Peter Cajka, now at Marquette University, has done some interesting work in this area of late and is currently researching the curious story of the world's first Experimental Safety Vehicle, the Aurora, designed by a Catholic Priest living in Bridgeport, CT, during the 1950s. It is a very important scholarly topic, however, and merits serious attention. Here are some excerpts from my book, The Automobile and American Life, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

An Answer to Prayer or Something to Pray About?

With the widespread sales of the Model T in rural areas of America after 1908, it was soon recognized that the automobile had a profound influence upon patterns of religious worship and beliefs. In terms of church worship, small rural congregations were displaced by the migration of believers to more central locations in larger towns and cities. More serious, perhaps, were the many sermons that called attention to young people who would forego Sunday services for the joys of the open road. And then there were those who somehow lost faith due to the modernism that the automobile brought to American society. For example, the following young woman’s recollection took place either in 1919 or 1920:

Our little Christian Endeavor flock of five high school boys and girls was returning for a religious retreat sheparded by our minister. The road home led up Pine Canyon from the Columbia River to Waterville [Washington]. It was a long steep grade of four miles or so. The day was hot. We were not yet halfway up when the minister’s Model T balked. The radiator boiled and the motor failed. Our good minister suggested that we call for God’s help so all six of us knelt in the road on the shady side of the car and prayed. The radiator soon ceased to boil, and we got underway again. Our prayers were answered but momentarily. Stops became frequent, and prayers increased in length. Three or four prayers later, the Model T topped the hill, and we were profoundly impressed with our convincing demonstration of the power of prayer.

Imagine the shock to my newly demonstrated convictions at what we learned from the owner of the service station in Waterville where we stopped to replace the radiator water which had boiled away and for gas. On hearing of our difficulties on the Pine Canyon Grade, he commented that all Model T’s behaved similarly on that hill. The customary and necessary way to get a Model T up that hill or any other which overheated the motor, he declared, was to stop at the instant the radiator boiled and wait to let the heated motor cool off as the Ford thermo-syphon cooling operated too slowly on hills to keep the motor at a safe operating temperature. When I learned that our prayers had merely provided the time for the thermo-syphon to overcome the motor heat, I was crushed. My faith in prayer suffered a mortal blow.

Within Catholic and Protestant contexts, strands of serious discussion about the automobile and its social consequences can be traced back to at least the 1920s. Literature of that era contained a consistent thread of critical commentary related to automobile issues that included safety, organized labor, economics, and social justice. While this stream of articles often reflected topics similar to those voiced in the secular mainstream, what made the material in the Christian literature distinctive was that a moral and at times biblical voice was often injected into an ethical debate concerning what should be the proper relationship between technology and society.

As shall be discussed, the Catholic viewpoint differed from that of the Protestant in both its emphasis on certain subjects at the expense of others, and surprisingly, perhaps, in terms of the intensity of its overall scriptural tone. Mainline Catholic literature tended to the practical and biblical; Protestant contributions were more idealistic while at the same time in language approached the secular. In both subcultures, however, authors attempted to solve difficult social problems created by the automobile during the Machine Age.

The automobile first became an issue for many American Catholics during the late 1920s, as the primary market shifted from rural to urban, and as city dwellers, many for the first time, began to contemplate purchasing vehicles. While the Catholic working class living in the largest of urban centers like New York City often would not purchase a car until after WWII, in the smaller cities and towns, like that of the Lynd’s MiddletownMuncie, Indiana – the family car came home by 1929.

To be sure, the automobile had been a topic in the Catholic literature of the first three decades of the twentieth century, but it was especially in the 1930s that it was frequently mentioned in the pages of The Commonweal, America, Columbia, Ave Maria, and GK’s Weekly. Although these essays and commentaries reflected similar articles also found in the secular literature, they often paid scant attention to those issues that Protestants characteristically echoed in their Middletown interviews; namely, discourses on how the Sunday auto trip was now a threat to Church attendance never appear in the Catholic literature. Seemingly, for Catholics, the car did not prevent parishioners from attending mass regularly. Nor was alcohol nearly as significant a topic for Catholic authors and editors as for their Protestant counterparts.

For example, an overwhelming number of articles appearing in nondenominational Protestant Christian Century during the 1930s railed against drinking and driving. Prohibition had been repealed by the mid-1930s, and one commentator after another linked the rising national auto accident and fatality rates with the “almost complete absence of regulation of strong liquor traffic.” It was more than a shrill attack on drunkenness, for it was argued that the consumption any amount of alcohol substantially increased the risks behind the wheel; therefore, for the responsible driver, the only safe course was temperance. Thus if it was sin, it was never mentioned in theological terms in these articles; rather, the evil was materially identifiable and liquid, with the simple remedy of abstinence. While far less frequently mentioned in the Catholic press, the practice of driving and drinking often resulted in an indignant diatribe despite the fact that Depression-era newspapers and secular periodicals normally ignored or hushed this type of news for a variety of complex reasons.

Protestants and Catholics found common ground, however, on the issue of what speed was doing to Americans, subtly and psychologically. And while on the whole, much of what was said in the Catholic press dealt more with practical than spiritually abstract matters, the latter was occasionally dealt with in surprising fashion. Such was the case of Theodore Maynard’s essay entitled “On Driving a Car,” that appeared in a 1931 issue of The Commonweal. The author fancied himself as a spirit-filled poet whose senses were now deadened by the automobile and speed. Sensing that his driving led to “a definite decrease in spirituality,” coupled with an increase in “a hard, dry, positive frame of mind,” Maynard had little or no inclination to learn about the technology he was saddled with, preferring to “think about it [the automobile] as little as possible.” Indeed, he looked forward to a time when he could give up the car, since then he would be “set free from the tyranny of speed, [and] I can take my pipe and stick and walk again through the quiet fields.” This tyranny of speed was part and parcel of the new world of the automobile. Increasingly, time and space were compressed. While technology had freed people from time-consuming chores and increased the pace of transportation, life was far more rushed and constrained than before. And this need for speed was apparently insatiable, as at times it was truly irrational, given the ever-increasing fatality statistics. Unlike Catholic writers who saw speed as an issue of personal responsibility and a moral decision, the editor of The Christian Century called for the installation of governors on all cars manufactured in Detroit. Clearly, responsibility was placed in the hands of the Big Three and the federal government, the latter acting as a countervailing force. It was more than just horsepower and sheer highway speed, however. As one Protestant minister remarked in a Middletown interview, speed had resulted in demands for sermons that did not run over, so church could end no later than noon. High noon marked the time “to hit the road.”

For all his acute insights, Maynard reflected a romantic strain of thought concerning the automobile, one in which it was thought that the car was a passing fad and that more eternal and simple values would ultimately prevail. According to this view, then, there was to be no American love affair with the car, for it was posited that the public would tire of accidents, and “a great ebbing of the tide of public interest in riding may set in. The novelty of speeding around in a car which has grown during the last thirty years into the great national pastime, may wear off, and people will stay at home more and tend gardens or otherwise occupy themselves in quiet and safety.” This writer, however, misjudged the power of the automobile over the individual; in contrast, as early as 1916 one astute priest remarked that “the automobile was here to stay.”

Most of the Catholic literature of the early 1930s did not concern itself with deep matters related to human beings and their relationship to the machine, however, but rather the effects of the automobile on everyday, common lives, especially in terms of the alarming rate of fatal accidents. There was a sharp increase in fatalities during the 1920s, as automobile accident deaths rose from 15,000 in 1922 to 33,000 in 1930. What most concerned Catholic writers about these statistics was the large number of pedestrians, especially the young and the old, who ranked disproportionately high on casualty lists. Authors made light of the fact that the automobile was killing more Americans than war, and that numbers were on a marked rise, despite the fact that the Great Depression had curtailed the number of miles driven. One essay equated the situation as akin to that of Herod and his slaughter of innocent children, for “It will suffice to face the central fact – that every day from one to a hundred little ones get in the path of speeding cars, are crushed to death or maimed for life. Such a toll summons to mind ancient and terrible images of gods to whom babes were tossed in sacrifice” Apparently for some it was sport, according to G. K. Chesterton:

Let me take the case of a very queer moral twist, about which this paper [G. K.’s Weekly] has often made protests; and often been practically alone in making them; the case of a motorist, clearly beholding somebody walking across the road, who drives straight at him, and knocks him down in a way that is more than likely than not to kill him.

Statistics aside, the topic of accidents was dealt with either by an exploration of causes – drivers, speed, the vehicles themselves, or highways – or remedies that included driver education and stricter licensing laws, better enforcement of speed restrictions, the construction of walking paths and better roads. Above all, it was a discussion about responsibility, and here fingers were pointed at mothers, manufacturers, government, but above all inexperienced or dangerous drivers. In the Lynd’ s followup to Middletown, Middletown in Transition, published in 1937, the complaints concerning the automobile and its threats towards child pedestrians were quite similar to those mentioned in Catholic articles, but with one important difference – responsibility and moral matters were never grappled with.

One article from the secular press that held sway in Catholic circles was Curtis Billings’ “The Nut that Holds the Wheel,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1932. Billings argued that many drivers were unprepared for the faster speeds now experienced, and that one needed to be properly taught to drive and maintain the car. He concluded, “It is time for us to learn that the automobile is no longer a novel toy, that it is a tremendous social force, mainly for good, but certainly for terrific evil unless it is sanely used.”

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the frightful nature of automobile accidents remained a central theme. However, one issue quickly gained importance during the second half of the 1930s – the tensions between organized labor and the Big Three. Until 1935, it was totally absent from the Catholic Periodical and Literature Index and Readers’ Guide. But between then and the coming of World War II, a substantial number of articles can be found in both the Catholic and Protestant press that demonized capitalists while sympathetically portraying the plight of the working classes. One Catholic author who railed against capital and management was Fr. Paul L. Blakely, S.J., who characterized the condition of autoworkers as “differing little from that of slavery.” Blakely righteously blasted the automakers, asserting that

this huge and inhuman industry has grown up within the last thirty years, is sad evidence of the world’s inability to understand the message of Leo XIII in his Labor Encyclical. But the message was simply the message of Jesus Christ, and his name is not in reverence in our modern world. Decidedly, there is something rotten at the heart of our alleged civilization, something that cannot be healed or excused by the forces which have been at work in the body politic for more than a quarter of a century.

Blakely followed with an essay on spies that had infiltrated the unions, assigning to management the name of Satan. Clearly, a wing of American Catholicism had taken on matters of social justice and there was no better stage than that of Detroit auto factories during the mid-to-late 1930s. Given the ethnicity and class of many churchgoers of the decade, and in the wake of such horrific episodes as the “Battle of the Overpass” involving bullies from Ford and the Reuther brothers, labor relations in Detroit was one topic that apparently was of interest to many readers. And indeed at least until the 1960s labor-management relations would form one important cluster of writing that appeared in the Catholic literature.

Protestant literature also covered union-management issues during the 1930s and beyond, but with little of the fierce intensity and biblical ire that characterized Catholic writing. Indeed, Protestant reporting was coldly analytical, with the only bit of emotion coming when describing the life of the first UAW president, Homer Martin, a former Baptist minister from Kansas City. Martin, “who was forced out of that Church in Kansas City has by his change of pulpits become a kind of Paul, who has taken away some of the profits of Demetrius and the Ephesian silversmiths, who has been in jail for his convictions, but whose cause is so just that not even the wealth of Dives can prevail against him.”

In sum, Church literature reflected sincere and sensitive concerns about the automobile and human purposes. The numerous essays and editorials revealed that Catholic writers recognized that the automobile possessed a Janus-like two faces, and that despite all of its conveniences, cars not only could maim and kill, but also subtly alter the human spirit. Thus, these writings mirrored a struggle that was associated with the rise of automobility during the first half of the twentieth century. It was serious stuff to debate thoughtfully, and profound questions concerning contemporary culture surfaced. Would a technology become the master of a society rather than a mere utilitarian tool subordinate to human purposes? Were humans somehow less important than machinery? In what ways were we inwardly changing to accommodate patterns of automobile use? These and more tensions were a part of a dialogue that was never fully addressed then or now, as evidenced by the fact that most people remain entranced by and dependent upon a machine that changed the world, both for better and for worse.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Automobiles and History -- a 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88, the Chappaquiddick Incident, and the Political Career of Ted Kennedy

On one hand, now is not the time to be making light of the flaws of a man who so readily admitted to his personal shortcomings. By all accounts, Ted Kennedy was a great American. He gave much to the country he loved, and his efforts resulted in legislation that helped many Americans is to be fully celebrated. He was a great man, but even great men can fall to the vicissitudes of the moment when Technology Wounds, to borrow a phrase from the title of a book by Chellis Glendenning. In Kennedy's case it was panic after a late night accident in July of 1967. The fact of the matter is that automobiles are dangerous things, a technological system that can cause lots of hurt, and one that can be lost control of in a split second.
The accident cast a shadow over Kennedy that he could never completely shake. It prevented him from running for President in 1972 and also 1980. Who knows if the nation would have been spared the pains of Watergate and the resignation of Nixon? To this day Kennedy haters are quick to bring up the matter.
It is remarkable that an everyday Oldsmobile Delmont 88 was at the center of an event that changed history in ways we will never fully know.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Two Funny Poems About the Model T

In 1915 the first of two volumes about the Model T, entitled Funny Stories About the Ford, was published.74 The following are a few excerpts:

The Formula in Poetry
A little spark, a little coil,
A little gas, a little oil,
A piece of tin, a two inch board –
Put them together and you have a Ford.

The Twenty-third Psalm
The Ford is my auto; I shall not want another.
It maketh me to lie down beneath it; it soureth my soul.
It leadeth me into the paths of ridicule for its namesake.
Yea though I rife through the valleys I am towed up the hill,
For I fear much evil. Thy rods and thy engines discomfort me;
I anoint my tires with patches; my radiator boileth over;
I repair blowouts in the presence of mine enemies.
Surely, if this thing followeth me all the days of my life,
I shall dwell in the bug-house forever.

You can read much more about the Model T and its influence on American thought and culture in my The Automobile and American Life -- available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cash for Clunkers Ends Tonight at 8 p.m.!!!

Thanks to Dr. Ed Garten for the photographs, used car lot surveys, and inspiration to write this entry today. On numerous occasions, you have made me a better automobile historian, Ed!

Hi folks -- $3 Billion have been spent on the Cash for Clunkers Program, and while there are many divergent opinions on its merits, my own feelings lean towards the positive. Indeed, of the huge amounts of federal stimulus monies that have been allocated to financial institutions, this relative mere pittance has done more for average people and businesses that need help than anything else. Yet, it is doubtful that an extension of the program or another program like it will be forthcoming. Critic Glen Beck has called it a "scam," but only a few mentally challenged nuts would agree with him. After all, replacement cars average nearly 10 mpg better than the ones now of the road, and sales in July, 2009 are the highest since August of 2008. Confidence in the economy has grown, and now it is projected that the industry will sell about 11 million cars and light trucks compared to previous forecasts of only 9 million. Environmental consequences are undoubtedly positive, but not perhaps overwhelming. High mileage vehicles, often with more than 140,000 miles, are being taken off the road. And those damned SUVs are not with us they way they once were!

The Top Cash for Clunker trade-ins are:

1. 1998 Ford Explorer
2. 1997 Ford Explorer
3. 1996 Ford Explorer
4. 1999 Ford Explorer
5. Jeep Grand Cherokee
6. Jeep Cherokee
7. 1995 Ford Explorer
8. 1994 Ford Explorer
9. 1997 Ford Windstar
10. 1999 Dodge Caravan

I say good riddance to those iron beasts! But note there are no Toyotas, Hondas, or Nissans, on this list. What does this mean in the long term?

The Top Ten Cash New Cars Purchased during the Cash for Clunkers Program:

1. Ford Focus
2. Honda Civic
3. Toyota Corolla
4. Toyota Prius
5. Ford Escape
6. Toyota Camry
7. Dodge Caliber
8. Hyundai Elantra
9. Honda Fit
10. Chevy Cobalt

4 domestics in the top 10 is not too bad!

Dr Garten actually walked around the approximately 50 or so cars on the back lot at Dave Dennis Chrysler/Jeep located in the Dayton, Ohio area and estimated that the clunkers roughly fell into these groups:

30 percent vans

30 percent SUVs

30 percent trucks

10 percent cars

Of the 50 or so cars and trucks I saw none that were foreign brands.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Last Truck: Advance Review of a Forthcoming (Sept. 7) HBO Documentary

Review of “The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant”

John Heitmann

Professor of History

University of Dayton

“The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant,” has really little to say about the end of a product line or a shuttered auto plant. Rather, the focus of this film is on the people who worked the line, the under-appreciated blue collar workers who for generations have struggled with fatigue, monotony, and less than understanding supervisors while putting together the vehicles we drive and sometimes love. Unlike Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me, a now celebrated film that centered on the community of Flint, Michigan and the effects of GM plant closings, “The Last Truck” is about everyday people, the dignity gained by doing work, comradeship, and ultimately hopes and dreams now gone, possibly forever.

Indeed, the powerful messages contained in this film are conveyed by a group of blue collar line workers whose lives are reflected in the lines etched on their faces. And while there are dozens of individuals interviewed, a few emerge as stars – Paul, “Popeye” Doyle, Kate Geiger, Rick Stacy, Darlene Henson, Kim Clay, and Louis Carter. In virtually ever case, working for GM not only helped define their lives, but made a far better life possible. And if we are to believe what is said, relationships that developed from working with each other more than compensated for the long hours, and bodily aches and pains that anyone working on the line experiences. In the end and on the last day, the tears that are shed are not simply for the loss of a job, but for the loss of friendships that helped make it all worthwhile.

What happened in Moraine should have been expected, and a number of the workers talk about the “good run” that ended. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, conditions, markets, and products have often changed quickly. With these transitions, workers have become unemployed, communities have been left behind, and the inevitable suffering took place. Significantly, and on a broader level, “The Last Truck” raises the issue of not just the future of Blue Collar America, but the nation as a whole, as globalism and free trade has brought with it increased competition from Asia in particular. Certainly the prospects of high school educated Americans having the ability to make a living wage are now in question. Perhaps we are living at the end of an era that did not come suddenly in 2008, but rather is rooted in the1970s.

The film does more than hint at GM’s incompetent management, and there is more than a bit of truth to this assertion. Certainly one cannot blame a line worker for the decision to make large, fuel-guzzling SUVs with out considering future petroleum shortages, energy dependency, and consumer demand. It is interesting to note how so little has been written about GM’s managerial strategies over the past 40 years, not surprising perhaps since outsiders have little access to the company’s historical documents. Worker wage, health care, and pension differentials cannot alone be responsible for the closing of the Moraine facility. Everything rises and falls on leadership, and GM has had a dearth of effective leadership for a long time.

Finally, while the film has its obvious strengths, it also has flaws. Reichert and Bognar romanticize the blue collar worker, not a surprise given their previous efforts. However, their portrayal certainly is at odds with the totally different view of assembly line work at GM that is characterized in Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line. Certainly not every worker loved his brothers and sisters, nor did some take pride in the job. Undoubtedly workers did come to work stoned, drunk, and disaffected, but we see none of this in the film. In fact, when one listens carefully to the interviews, the job was not one seen as so important by many until it was about to go away.

Is it inevitable that these jobs are gone forever? Perhaps not, for history provides us with many lessons from the past where unlikely outcomes happen. In the meantime, when you think of your car or truck, remember the people like those we see in “The Last Truck,” who made what you use and love possible.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Twenty Most Significant Automobiles that Influenced American Culture

Hi folks -- I had a nice lunch with fellow tennis player and businessman Steve Sunshine yesterday. Steve is great about bringing me back to reality, and away from the esoteric study of the past. As a result of that conversation, I have constructed a list of the 20 most significant automobiles that influenced American Culture from the beginning of the Twentieth Century to the present. If you have any additions to this list, or want to suggest other candidates for inclusion, contact me. I will follow with a write-up on each of these vehicles.

1. Curved Dash Oldsmobile
2. Ford Model T, 1908-1927
3. Ford 1932 Modified "Little Deuce Coupe"
4. Duesenberg SJ and SSJ
5. Jeep
6. Ford Mercury, 1949, chopped and customized
7. Oldsmobile Rocket 88, 1950
8. MG-TC, 1946-1949
9. Cadillac Eldorado, 1953
10. Volkswagen Bug
11. Chevrolet Corvette
12. Ford Thunderbird
13. Ford Mustang
14. Dodge Charger R/T
15. Pontiac GTO
16. BMC Mini
17. Porsche 911
18. Aston-Martin DB5
19. Nissan Skyline GTR
20. Cadillac Escalade

Monday, August 17, 2009

Auto Theft II -- J. Edgar Hoover on Notorious Ringleader Bla Bla Blackman, Gabriel Vigorio

What follows is an excerpt from a J. Edgar Hoover article on one of Pre-World War II America's most famous car thieves, Gabriel Vigorito. During the next few months I will be working on the topic of auto theft, and will focus on a number of the most important car theft ring-leaders as I construct the narrative. This should provide a taste of the story:

Excerpts from J.E. Hoover, “Bla Bla, Black Man,” American Magazine, 122 (September, 1936), 32-4+.

“Gabriel Vigorito, otherwise known as Bla-Bla the Black Man, specialized in the theft of automobiles upon an international basis. For twelve years every car owner in the Brooklyn section of New York City paid tribute, either to the Black Man or because of him. This was evidenced by the fact that shortly after his arrest and conviction huge signs made their appearance in Brooklyn:

“Automobile Insurance Reduced Fifteen Per Cent.”

The Black Man himself could not truly be called a car thief. Except in one minor instance. He was a Big Businessman of Crime, a directing head of lawbreaking who remained free while others went to prison. You’ll find such a person in nearly every city in America, directing the activities of lesser thugs, hiding behind technicalities, forcing underlings, often under the threat of death, to take punishment which he deserves. Thereby the Big Businessman of the underworld remains, to an extent, beyond the law. He is the real criminal menace which America must fear and hate and pursue relentlessly.

Bla-Bla the Black Man rolled up an illicit fortune estimated at more than $1,000,000. His gang stole thousands of expensive automobiles and resold them at an average price of from $800 to more than $1,000 apiece. The ‘hot car” depots of a dozen states dealt in his goods. In Persia, Russia, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and even China, the American car business included many automobiles stolen from the streets of Brooklyn. All these activities were controlled by the twisted brain of one man, whom law enforcement agencies pursued in vain for more than a decade. Only recently the Black Man, now [1936] incarcerated in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, gave up a fight for freedom which had run the gamut of the courts.

The Black Man had graduated into the perfect motion-picture type of gangster. Short, well-built, with black hair and raven eyes, he was a mobster of the fashion-plate kind. His derby hat was always cocked at a perfect angle, his Chesterfield overcoat, with its inevitable velvet collar, was augmented by a white silk muffler. His clothing was expensively tailored. His shirts were custom-made. So were his shoes.

His friends called him a great fellow, loaded with money and ready to spend it….

Jovial, his teeth flashing white against his dark skin when he smiled, Gabriel Vigorito was by no means a person of the shadows. …

In the later years of Bla-Bla’s activities he had among his supersalesmen a Yale graduate, a Newark attorney, and an officer of a New York printing company. How the Black Man had been able to turn them from honest pursuits into illegitimate ones still remains a secret.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Auto-Biography II -- 1966 Mustang

Hi folks -- this is a photo of a much younger and hairier me in the Spring of 1970 with my 1966 Mustang, as I was driving through the Great Smokey Mountain National Park with my new bride, Kaye. Note the blue sneakers, which I guess I must have thought were cool at the time, but looking back from the present they sure appear geeky. I purchased the Mustang at the end of the summer of 1968, and drove it down to Davidson College in NC. I had worked hard during that summer at the Carborundum Company in Niagara Falls, NY, and flush with overtime money, bought the car for $1600 at Ibbotson-Ritchie Ford in Tonawanda, NY. It was a simply appointed car -- 6 cylinder engine, three speed manual on the floor, with a radio but no air conditioning. Yet, it was one of the very best cars that I have ever owned. It took me to college and back, including through one memorable Christmas snow storm. It was the car in which Kaye, my wife to be, pulled off the radio knob on our first date, an action that irritated me considerably despite her good looks and pleasant attitude. It never failed me, always looked good, and while it was certainly no speed merchant, the Mustang was simple, rugged, economical and dependable. What could one ask for more than that? It pulled a trailer with our worldly goods after graduation from Davidson. Unfortunately, it was smashed on a snowy side street in Rochester, New York, during the Christmas of 1970. I have never thought about it until now, but with the end of the 1966 Mustang in my life a far darker and more difficult period began, one that I often try to forget.
In 1991 I purchased a 1990 Mustang convertible that I owned until 2007, and again it was a great car that has left me with many good memories. And perhaps another Mustang will enter my my life in the near future. Will it be a convertible, or a Bullitt fastback?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Grand Theft Auto, and Gone in Sixty Seconds: Auto Theft during the 1920s and 1930s

Gone in Sixty Seconds: Joyriders and Criminals

Hi folks -- one sabbatical project this fall will be expanding on work on the history of auto theft that was done last year and contained in my book "The Automobile and American Life" that I heartily recommend you buy. While at the National Archives last week I acquired plenty of new material to work with on this topic, although I will have to make at least one more trip back to DC to look at files at the FBI and also again at the National Archives. One of the most notorius of auto theives from the 1920s to the 1950s had a large file I examined, and I will exapnd on his story shortly. Here is what has been written so far on the topic, which you cannot find in any another book or published article.

With Ford’s “democratization” of the automobile and an explosion in the number of vehicles came an epidemic of automobile theft. Machines produced in mass quantities made easy prey for “joy-riders” and professional criminals. Moreover, the automobile was valuable, mobile, and its parts were interchangeable. Lucrative domestic and international markets for stolen automobiles and stolen parts yielded high profits. Interchangeable parts also gave thieves the opportunity to quickly reconstruct and disguise stolen automobiles. As evinced by thieves’ ability to alter serial numbers, duplicate registration papers, switch radiators, and replace entire engine blocks, a nascent uniformity welcomed theft. Moreover, thieves sought out and stole the most ubiquitous automobile; popular, mid-priced models were most likely to be stolen, along with the easy to steal Model T. As early as 1910 joyriding and automobile theft were problems for the automobilist. Major concerns centered on the unauthorized use of an owner’s vehicle by a chauffeur or a parking attendant. To that end a number of devices were marketed, from a gear shift lever lock to recorders that kept tabs on when a vehicle was actually being driven.

Until the introduction of the electric self-starter in 1912, automobiles employed a battery/magneto switch along with a crank. The automobilist turned the switch to B (battery), got outside the car, cranked the engine, and then once it started, moved the lever to M (magneto) and adjusted the carburetor. On early Ford Model T’s, the battery/magneto switch had a brass lever key, but there were only two types, with either a round or square shank. Later, in 1919, Ford offered an optional lockable electric starter, but only used twenty-four key patterns. To make things easy for the thief, each pattern was stamped with a code on both the key and the starter plate. Would-be joy-riders needed only a little luck to drive off with any unguarded Model T.

Unlike other stolen goods, the automobile enabled its own escape. As one author observed in 1919:

Not only is the motor vehicle a particularly valuable piece of property . . . but it furnishes at the same time an almost ideal getaway . . . With the automobile there is no planning to be done. With a thousand divergent roads open to him and a vehicle possessing almost unlimited speed, escape is practically automatic.

A New York Police official commented in 1916 that, “the automobile is a very easy thing to steal and a hard thing to find.” As early as 1915, 401 automobiles were stolen in New York and only 338 were recovered. By 1920, it was estimated that one-tenth of cars manufactured annually were eventually stolen. Astonishingly, perhaps, in 1925 it was estimated that 200,000 to 250,000 cars were stolen annually. Table 2 provides theft data for major American cities:

Table 2. Automobile Thefts in Major American Cities, 1922-1925







New York















Los Angeles





San Francisco










Source: Automotive Industries, 56 (February 19, 1927), 283.

Further, the automobile created new opportunities for criminals and confronted legal authorities with a myriad of problems. One author noted that, “as automobile thefts increase burglaries and robberies increase.” The automobile itself was stolen, but the automobile also played a central role in kidnapping, rum running, larceny, burglary, traffic crimes, robberies, and the deadly accidents of the “lawless years.” The Baltimore Criminal Justice Commission reported that

In August, 1922, one of Baltimore’s well known and highly respected citizens was held up, robbed of $7000 and brutally murdered in broad daylight on the busy thoroughfares of the city. The bandits perpetrating this carefully planned crime escaped in a high powered car bearing stolen license plates.

In 1924, Arch Mandel of the Dayton Research Association observed, “The motor vehicle has ushered in a new era of crime and police problems, and apparently a new type of offender.” “To cope with this problem” Mandel wrote, “police departments have been obliged to detail special squads and to establish special bureaus for recovering stolen automobiles . . . this has added to the cost of operating police departments.” Consequently, the increase in mobility was matched with a growth in government. The cost of police work in cities with populations over 30,000 rose steadily from approximately $38 million in 1903 to $184.5 million in 1927. Automobile theft added new categories of crimes, and as a piece of technology became a central part of burglary and housebreaking. In Philadelphia, 8,896 people were arrested for assault and battery by the automobile. In response, police began to patrol with the automobile. In 1922, Chicago police complained that their worn-out “tin lizzies” should be scrapped; they could not catch the high powered hold-up car that traveled at sixty miles an hour. Even with the growth of government and the advent of patrolling, police forces were out-maneuvered by mobile criminals. Contrary to the iconic Prohibition image of police forces smashing barrels of alcohol, municipal police forces may have dealt with automobiles on a more regular basis.

Automobile theft was most acute in Detroit and Los Angeles. “Naturally Detroit is peculiarly liable to this trouble because it has such a large floating population of men trained in mechanical expertise in the various factories.” It stood to reason that Ford’s workers stole Ford’s Cars. In Detroit, in 1928, a total of 11,259 cars were stolen. The same year in Los Angeles 10,813 automobiles were stolen. By the 1920s, Los Angeles had the most automobiles per resident in the United States. Historian Scott Bottles pointed out, “By 1925, every other Angelino owned an automobile as opposed to the rest of the country where there was only one car for every six people.” Angelinos had more opportunities to steal cars. Baltimore, New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Omaha, St. Louis, and many other cities also experienced major problems related to automobile theft. In an article published in Country Life, Alexander Johnson revealed the problem was not just endemic to urban America: “We who live in the country are not quite as subject as our urban brethren to this abominable outrage, but automobile stealing is carried on even in the rural districts.”

The cost of police work in state governments also rose from approximately $98 million in 1915 to $117 million in 1927. To combat auto theft, state governments created license, registration, title, and statistical bureaus and urged the federal government to become involved. E. Austin Baughman, Commissioner of Motor Vehicles of Maryland, cited 1919 as “the climax of an epidemic of car stealing” with 922 cars stolen, 709 recovered, and 213 missing. Baughman urged the country to adopt a Title Law which would assure all motor vehicles could be identified and located through the name and address of the owner on record. The bureau helped Maryland to gather statistics:

. . . one can in a comparatively short time find anything from how many 1912 Cadillacs are still in existence in this state, to how many more Fords were stolen than Chevrolets in 1923 or 1922; and from how many six- and seven-ton trucks are still in use in Maryland and to what percentage of cars stolen in 1923 are still missing.

In 1920, Massachusetts developed a similar program under the used-car department of the Department of Public Works. States that did not pass title laws were a nationwide liability and became alleged “dumping grounds” by neighboring states.

The inter-state nature of automobile theft demanded federal intervention. The automobile nullified state boundaries and contributed to the nationalization of crime fighting. Arch Mandel wrote in 1924 that, “State lines have been eliminated by the automobile” and the “detection of criminals is becoming more and more a nation-wide task.”

In 1919, Congress passed the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which received the appellation of its sponsor, Senator Leonidus Dyer. The Dyer Act promulgated that thieves receive fines of $5,000 and 10 years in prison, or both. The American Automobile Association lobbied congress to pass the Dyer Act. Consequently, between 1922-1933 auto thefts were the most prominent federal prosecution of interstate commerce.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, of auto theft was blamed on the owner negligence. A 1916 insurance company pamphlet entitled “Emergency Instructions,” warned owners that “when dining in a public restaurant the driver of the car should be seated in such a position that he can observe his car.” Basic instructions also warned to “not leave your car unprotected on the street or any place at any time.” However, in 1922 many automobile owners left keys in their unlocked cars. An article in Popular Mechanics Magazine observed, “Approximately seventy-five percent of all the cars that were not stolen were not locked at all.” One author chastised drivers for leaving automobiles unattended for an hour or more. Beyond common-sense precautions, automobile owners were advised to take preventive measures to stop early car thieves. Owners were advised to lock their doors or “garage” their automobiles. In his 1917 article “Automobile Thefts,” John Brennan proposed one countermeasure: “If owners would only take steps to put private identification marks on their cars, the problem of automobile thievery would be a simple one to solve.” It was suggested that the owner bore holes into the underside of the running boards, scratch their name somewhere secret, or tape an identification card inside the upholstery. A 1926 article in Popular Mechanics passed on to readers one motorist’s intricate plan of fake coils and pseudo ignition connections. Other articles proposed that owners disconnect the magneto. In any case, the prevailing attitude of the day was that automobile theft was usually the owner’s fault. In 1929, E. L. Rickards, manager of the Automobile Protective and Information Bureau in Chicago, stated: “A man or woman who leaves his car unlocked and unattended is committing an offense against society.”

Thieves were recognized as frauds, joy-riders, professionals, and gangs. They stole a range of models, but mostly low-priced Chevrolets, Plymouths, Chryslers, and Fords. Furthermore, automobiles were most likely to be stolen in business or entertainment districts, where individuals parked the same models in the same place. Often a thief caught red-handed simply claimed that they had hopped into the wrong car. When interrogated by a judge, one thief explained why he was in the wrong Ford: “Because both cars are Fords, and all Fords look alike, not only to me but to their owners.” Charges were dropped. Despite preferences to steal commonplace vehicles, elite and unusual automobiles were not exempt from the threat of theft. Expensive cars were stolen, disassembled and repainted.

Early automobile thefts were performed by owners who would, “steal their own car.” To collect on insurance, owners would strip the car of accessories and move it to an out of the way location. The owner would work with a thief: . . . the owner is in partnership with the thief. An auto, for instance, that is insured for $2,000 is reported by the owner as having been stolen. The machine is worth $1,500. So the owner, collecting his theft insurance, makes a clean profit of $500.

Owners in debt often defrauded insurance companies as well: “an automobile owner, after using his insured car for nine or ten months, discovers that its market value is 40 percent lower than when first purchased; also the cost of maintaining the machine, oil, gasoline, tires, repairs, etc., is considerably in excess of the figure on which his first maintenance costs were based.”

Quite different in terms of criminal intent were the activities of the so-called joy-rider. Joy-riders stole for thrills. In 1917, Secretary to the Detroit Chief of Police, George A. Walters estimated that 90 percent of Detroit’s auto thefts were performed by joy-riders. Joy-riders were often groups of young men in pursuit of fun, and had a “taste for motoring.” One author argued that joy-riders (in all cases male) had a sexual motivation, “Some young fellow with sporty tendencies and a slim pocketbook wants to make a hit with some charming member of the opposite sex . . . he thinks an automobile would help him in the pursuit of her affections.” After a joy-ride, automobiles were often found damaged and out of gas. Historian David Wolcott has noted that in Los Angeles, “Boys approached auto theft with a surprisingly casual attitude – they often just took vehicles that they found unattended, drove them around for an evening and abandoned them when they were done – but the LAPD treated auto theft very seriously.” In the early period of automobility, authorities considered “joy-riding” a serious societal problem. Joy-riding was an action of a delinquent. Joy-riding was so serious that young boys were prosecuted under the Dyer Act of 1919. The federal government did not draw a distinction between joy-riding and professional auto theft until 1930. Congressmen Dyer called for the repeal of his own law, and to convince the U.S. House of Representatives of the need for repeal, he read a letter from the superintendent of a penitentiary:

Of the 450 Federal Boys in the National Training School here in Washington, nearly 200 are violators of the Dyer Act, with the ages distributed as follows: Two boys 12 years of age, 6 boys 13 years of age, 19 boys 14 years of age, 31 boys of 15 years of age, 64 boys 16 years of age, 48 boys 17 years of age, 19 boys of 18 years of age, 1 boy 19 years of age, and 1 boy 22 years of age.

Due to the capricious nature of theft for a joy-ride, policemen and journalists surmised that it could be easily prevented: “It is against this class of thief that the various types of automobile-locking devices and hidden puzzles are effective . . . since the joy-rider does more than half the stealing it follows that car-locks are more than 50 percent effective in protecting a car.” However, more elaborate means would be necessary to stop the professional thief.

Writers who addressed auto theft from 1915 to 1938 admitted that the professional thief could not be stopped. Professional thieves employed an array of tactics to steal automobiles. Often chauffeurs, mechanics, and garage men became thieves. Even though locks supposedly prevented theft by joy-riders, thieves would simply cut padlocks and chains with bolt-cutters. Often this was not necessary, since keys to early Fords were easy to obtain. In 1917, Edward C. Crossman described the naïve Ford owner:

Ford owners take out the switch key on the coil box and go strutting off as if they’d [sic] locked the car in the safe deposit box. The first half-baked auto mechanic who needs a Ford can slip in another key and depart via the jitney route without paying his fair.

Crossman’s solution was to lock a heavy metal band around the front wheel of the automobile. In a May 1929 article “Tricks of the Auto Thief,” Popular Mechanics described the array of tactics open to the automobile thief. Thieves stole accessories, unlocked and started cars with duplicate keys, “jumped” the ignition by placing a wire across the ignition coil to the spark plugs, ripped-off car dealerships, and towed cars away. “Some thieves make a specialty of buying wrecked or burned cars as junk . . . they receive a bill of sale, salvage parts which they place on stolen cars, and so disguise the finished automobile as a legitimate car for which they have the bill of sale.” One method called “kissing them away” involved an individual breaking into a car, and being unable to start the ignition, a “confederate,” would push the stolen car with his car from behind. The car would be moved into a garage or alley and promptly dismantled. Thieves used interchangeable parts to confuse authorities. In 1925, Joe Newell, head of the automobile theft bureau in Des Moines, Iowa, stated, “the greatest transformation that takes place in the stolen machine is in the clever doctoring of motor serial numbers . . . this is the first thing a thief does to a car.” Automobiles were branded with a serial number that corresponded to a factory record, but thieves used several tactics to change the numbers. The “doctoring” of numbers involved filing down numbers and branding a new numbers into the car, or changing single numbers. In a detailed article entitled “Stolen Automobile Investigation,” William J. Davis noted, “It is possible for a thief to restamp a 4 over a 1; an 8 over a 3 where the 3 is a round top 3; a 5 over a 3; to change a 6 to an 8, or a 9 to an 8, or an 0 to an 8.”

Apparently the joy-riding problem declined in the 1930s, but organized gangs emerged as a more serious threat to steal automobiles and, in the process, vex authorities. In Popular Science Monthy, Edward Teale noted:

. . . the automobile stealing racket in the United States has mounted to a $50,000,000-a-year business. During the first six months of 1932, 36,000 machines disappeared in seventy-two American cities alone. In New York City, $2,000,000 worth of cars was reported stolen in 1931.

Gangs developed sophisticated automobile theft operations from the expert driver to expert mechanic. Gangs even developed their own vernacular. A stolen car was a “kinky,” or a “hot short.” The “clouter” actually stole the car and the “wheeler” drove it to the “dog house.” The thieves were concerned with stealing the popular, mid-priced, widely-used makes. Gangs often specialized in a certain make or model. One New York gang “scrambled” the stolen automobiles: “a number of machines of the same make and model are stolen at the same time . . . wheels are switched, transmissions shifted, bodies’ changed, and engines transferred from one car to another.”

At other times, gangs would use the “mother system.” Under this system, thieves stole a certain make, had a fake bill of sale made, and changed all of the serial numbers to be identical to the bill of sale. Ultimately, four or five of the same car, with the same serial numbers and bills of sale would exist. In 1936, J. Edgar Hoover penned an article about gangster and international car thief named Gabriel Vigorito (a.k.a. Bla-Bla Blackman), who had amassed a $1 million fortune from automobile theft. “The “hot car” depots of a dozen states dealt in his goods . . . In Persia, Russia, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and even China, the American car business included many automobiles stolen from the streets of Brooklyn.” Authorities convicted Bla-Bla to ten years in prison. Historically, the point is poignant: the automobile trumped not only state lines, but national lines. The rise of an industrial and global industry also rose with a global theft ring. In 1936, the Roosevelt Administration entered a treaty with Mexico for “the recovery and return of stolen or embezzled motor vehicles, trailers, airplanes or the component parts of any of them.” The treaty prompted a convention with Mexico in 1937 to address the stolen automobile problem.

To control rampant automobile crimes, authorities developed scientific means to fight crime. As early as 1919, a system of fingerprints to identify automobile owners was proposed. Throughout the 1920s, law enforcement of automobile theft remained ineffective. By 1934, police developed sophisticated means to monitor a more mobile public. In 1936 it was urged that “every city join the nation-wide network of inter-city radio-telegraph service provided for by the Federal Communications Commission.” Police developed processes using chemicals and torches to identify fake serial numbers. Los Angeles police department officers departed the station for their shift with a list of stolen automobiles printed the night before. Developments in communication aided police officers. “Chattering teletype machines and short-wave radio messages outdistance the fleetest car, while police encircle a fleeing criminal in an effort to make escape impossible.” Radio communication made auto theft difficult. By 1934, “auto thieves found their racket a losing one.” In response to mobile crime, Governments at all levels grew more sophisticated. Insurance companies also grew more sophisticated: “In Chicago, a central salvage bureau, maintained by insurance companies is being established in an effort to wipe out a 10,000,000-a-year racket in stolen parts.” Automobile manufacturers invested in a “pick-proof” lock. From 1933 to 1936, insurance companies and the government destroyed the market for stolen automobiles and stolen parts. In 1934 Popular Science Monthly reported, “figures compiled by the National Automobile Underwriters Association show that eighty-six percent of the cars stolen in 1930 were recovered while in 1931 eighty-two percent were recovered and eighty-nine percent in 1932.”

A definitive study of car theft during the Interwar years remains to be written. What the above paragraphs suggest is that the automobile placed unprecedented challenges before local, state, and federal government agencies, and in response the responsibilities and scale of government changed as a consequence. Indeed, the law itself changed, and that included the area of tort law during the 1920s, as sorting out negligence as a consequence of automobile accidents also posed new problems that demanded innovative structural solutions.